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The advent of photography as proof and instagram

To Instagram or Not to Instagram?

by Jillian Steinhauer on December 11, 2013

Clamoring crowds around the Mona Lisa (photo by Harald Groven, via Flickr)

Clamoring crowds around the Mona Lisa (photo by Harald Groven, via Flickr)

One of the stories making the rounds in the art blogosphere at the moment is this articlefrom LiveScience, which details a study that found people were less likely to remember artwork they saw in a museum if they photographed it. Psychologist Linda Henkel conducted two experiments with undergraduates: the first showed that students who took pictures of art objects had more trouble recalling them — what Henkel calls the “photo-taking impairment effect”; the second confirmed the same results, with the added conclusion that those students assigned to take detailed shots of artworks (a head, a foot, etc.) actually remembered them better.

Henkel’s findings dovetail nicely with an essay by Eric Gibson, who’s the Arts & Leisure features editor of the Wall Street Journal, in the current issue of The New Criterion. Gibson’s piece decries “the overexposed museum” (its title), and he writes:

Yet, like a Trojan Horse, there is something in their midst that threatens to undo the museums’ efforts. This is the near-universal use of smartphones and tablets to snap pictures inside the galleries. Flash photography has long been banned owing to the damage its blasts of high-intensity light can inflict on paintings. Smartphones and tablets pose a less visible but potentially graver threat. They disconnect the visitor from the art on display and imperil the museum in other, very real, ways. For this reason, if the museum experience is to continue to mean anything, these devices, like flash photography, need to be banned.

A woman poses for a portrait with the Mona Lisa (photo by Carrie Cizauskas, via Flickr)

A woman poses for a portrait with the Mona Lisa (photo by Carrie Cizauskas, via Flickr)

Gibson goes on to fault the ubiquitous presence of smartphones not just for museum picture-taking overload, but also for the ascension of the #ArtSelfie. “Rather than contemplating the works on view, visitors now pose next to them for their portrait,” he writes. “In pre-digital photography the subject was the work of art. Now it is the visitor; the artwork is secondary. Where previously the message of such images was ‘I have seen,’ now it is ‘I was here.’”

Taken together, the message from Henkel and Gibson seems pretty clear: Death to the Instagrammers!! You’re ruining the art for everyone, including yourselves!

OK, so, maybe I’m being a little dramatic. I’m only trying to match Gibson’s lofty tone, which he uses to extoll the virtues of the good-old-fashioned museum-going experience — an experience that’s now been lost to the touristing masses. PS1, you should never havechanged your photo policy.

Except I don’t buy it. First of all, Gibson’s argument is muddled: it’s hard to tell if he’s taking aim at selfies or photography in museums in general. It seems like the latter, with a dig at the former because it’s cool to have a stance on selfies now. And if it’s just the latter — well, when I saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, before smartphones and tablets were anywhere near their current level of ubiquity, the room was insanely crowded and everyone was taking pictures. I’m not convinced smartphones have changed that, except perhaps to bring a severely modified version of this experience to works less famous than the Mona Lisa.

But more importantly, Gibson contends that people are approaching artworks now the way they do the Grand Canyon: get in for the photo, then get out. No engagement, no reaction, no interaction. You can’t, he says, have a real “art experience” (his phrase) when you’re busy taking pictures of the art. And Henkel’s findings would seem to confirm this (61 undergraduates can’t be wrong).

I disagree, because the obvious point Gibson has missed is that people are often taking pictures because they’re excited about art. They came because they wanted to see it with their own eyes. And they’re using their cameras and smartphones as a form of interaction — we live, after all, in the age of mechanical reproduction, not the age of aura. Did we lose something in the exchange? Probably. But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands completely. The way we understand and process art has changed — you can take it home with you, blow it up on your computer screen, remix it in Photoshop, Snapchat it to your friends — in part because the way we understand nearly all cultural production has changed. Henkel’s findings are interesting, but I’d like to see someone discuss them in relation to larger studies about how our brains and memories work amid the overload of the internet. And I must say, as an art critic with a terrible memory, my smartphone is my savior when December rolls around and I’m expected to make best-of lists.

I’m not saying Gibson doesn’t have a point — there certainly are plenty of people who come to the museum for the photos and nothing else. Those people annoy me, too. (I tend to give them dirty looks or photo-bomb them.) The trend toward oversized art spectacles doesn’t help. But at the end of the day, if museums are managing to reach more people and get them looking at art, I see that as a good thing. Sure, I miss the quiet sometimes, but now I have the satisfaction of looking around a crowded gallery and knowing that at least some of these people are finally seeing what I see.